When I meet Kyla Zhao for the first time to talk about her new book, The Fraud Squad, the smiley 24-year-old is a bundle of excitement and nerves.
“I’m honestly terrified,” Kyla says, when I ask how she’s feeling about her book launch, just two days away on Jan. 18, 2023.
At 24, Kyla already has an impressive list of achievements.
For starters, she’s built an accomplished editorial portfolio working for the likes of publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Tatler.
Kyla also holds a Masters in Communications (Media Studies) and a Bachelors’ degree in Psychology from Stanford University, which is widely considered to be one of the best universities in the world.
What makes all this even more debilitating for our self-esteem is that while juggling her studies during the pandemic, Kyla also embarked on a writing project that would eventually land her two six-figure book deals with Berkley Publishing.
Berkley Publishing is an imprint of the prestigious Penguin Random House, which, by the way, also published Prince Harry’s recent memoir.
Inspired by real life
The Fraud Squad, which Kyla describes to me as “Putting the lie in Socialite” (I asked her to describe her book in five words), was conceived in June 2021 while she was stuck in her dorm due to Covid-19.
To come up with the story of working class woman Samantha Song who infiltrates Singapore’s high society to fulfil her dreams, Kyla drew on her own experience working for luxury fashion magazines.
One of her favourite scenes in the book, Kyla says, is a magazine photoshoot involving bodyguards on set and padlocked jewels.
The reality of a photoshoot however, is rarely as glamorous as the world thinks it is.
“Most of the time it’s being shot in a warehouse, and those warehouses are located in the industrial estates of Singapore. And when I take a taxi there, the uncles would be looking at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’, like I look so out of place!”
Another key plot line in the book involves a gossip column that anonymously spills the dirt on socialites.
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This, Kyla says, is inspired by her time interning at Tatler, where the magazine would run a column reporting five juicy tidbits about socialites every month.
And even though she declines to spill the tea on any of the more salacious gossip she’s heard, Kyla does admit to overhearing quite a lot during her time there.
“I think that thing about being an intern, especially someone who looks pretty young like me, is that I’m probably the least noticeable person around. And so people somehow feel more comfortable saying things or revealing things that they otherwise might not have.”
From the outside looking in
In The Fraud Squad, protagonist Samantha Song spins a web of lies in her quest to impress the editor-in-chief of Singapore’s poshest magazine, while evading a mysterious gossip columnist on the prowl for dirt.
Samantha’s motivations, Kyla says, are a reflection of her own impostor syndrome and her desire to fit in when she first arrived in Stanford.
“I was surrounded by the children of some of the richest people in the world—like, their family names were on the buildings on campus! And everyone just seems so sophisticated and cool and mature. And I just remember, a lot of times thinking, ‘Wow, I feel really out of place here. How did I get here and do I really belong here?'”
Aside from the feelings of being an outsider, there was also fear and sadness at the anti-Asian racism that was going on in the U.S. during that time.
“I would see photos of old people with black eyes and bruised faces, and all I could think of was my own parents and grandparents back home. And I think that just really got to me.”
Escaping the chaos of the real world
At a time where she was feeling lonely and isolated from her family halfway across the globe, Kyla found herself searching for Asian-centred fiction which was “joyful and lighthearted”.
She couldn’t find any—something she attributes to her own “ignorance” of Asian authors back then—and so decided to create her own.
Kyla was also inspired by the success of Crazy Rich Asians.
“Crazy Rich Asians came along and for the first time, I was like, wow, people who look like me could be the stars of a really fun and vibrant and positive story. And yeah, that was kind of amazing.
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Still, she is quick to clarify that Asianness isn’t the focal point of The Fraud Squad.
“I didn’t want my Asian characters to become a caricature, or to be what the West would think of Asian people. Like, they are Asian, so they use chopsticks. That’s just not how it works. Their ethnicity is one facet of them, but there’s so much more going on for them as well. They are just people, at the end of the day.”
From dorm room to the world
Kyla remembers the exact date she began writing The Fraud Squad – June 28, 2020.
After about nine months, her friends suggested she try to get it published, and so began the process of searching for a literary agent.
“I had a few agents who were interested in signing me. But then they asked, ‘Would you consider setting the book in America?’, or ‘Would you consider making one of the characters white so that it would be easier to find an American publisher?’ and I was like, I don’t think they really understood why I wrote this story in the first place.”
Eventually, she was able to find an agent who respected and supported her vision.
The day before she turned 23, her agent sent out her book to various publishers, and Kyla hoped that at least one of these publishers would like her work.
She ended up getting nine offers, with the book going to auction.
Eventually, after meeting with everyone who had sent in an offer, Kyla landed on Berkley.
Exactly one year later on June 28 2021, Kyla made her official publishing announcement.
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Life outside of writing
Aside from writing, Kyla works full time in marketing at a tech firm.
What attracted her to tech, she says, is the same thing that attracted her to fashion years ago.
“There are many similarities between tech and fashion in the sense that people are always creating, and people are always challenging the status quo and trying to think of new things.”
She also runs a TikTok account where she comments on pop culture moments and talks about mental health, in addition to publicising her work.
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Now, with the success of her initial foray into becoming a published author, I asked her if she would ever consider doing it full-time.
The answer was an emphatic “no”.
“That would increase a lot of the pressure and suck a lot of joy out of it for me. I have spoken to full time authors and they say that, you know, at some point when you realise that this is really the only thing that pays your bills, you stop thinking as much about ‘What do I want to write?’, and you start thinking more about what the readers want to read.”
Writing, for now, remains a passion project for Kyla, who is also working on her debut children’s novel May The Best Player Win, due to be published in 2024.
Meanwhile, you can purchase The Fraud Squad on Amazon and in Kinokuniya and other bookstores.
Images via Kyla Zhao
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